The Kurdish region in northern Iraq was on fire Monday night. In the streets of Erbil, the region’s capital, passing cars honked their horns through a sea of red, white and green Kurdish flags. About a hundred miles to the north, in the city of Dohok, residents danced in the streets.
Kurds were celebrating the results of a historic referendum on independence. After a decades-long struggle for autonomy, projections indicate that 92 percent of Kurds voted on Monday for the establishment of their own state. But despite the overwhelming win for the Kurdistan Regional Government, the vote is just the start of a lengthy process ― and experts fear that the independence of Kurdistan could become a bloody affair.
‘Kurdistan could disappear’
The Kurdish bid for independence in Iraq faces fierce opposition from both Iraq’s central government and the international community.
“Kurdistan could disappear,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned ahead of the vote.
Already under pressure amid the ongoing war against the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State, the government in Baghdad has made it clear it will resist plans for Kurdish independence. “We will not abandon the unity and sovereignty of Iraq,” Abadi said following the vote.
The Iraqi government is particularly concerned about the future of the city of Kirkuk, the oil capital of Iraq. Kirkuk is mainly held by Kurdish peshmerga fighters, and the Kurds want it to be part of any future Kurdish state, although the city only came under control of the Kurdish autonomous region after the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014.
Following Monday’s referendum, the Iraqi parliament called on Abadi to send troops to Kirkuk to secure the oil fields there. “There will be war for Kirkuk,” warned Kurdish university lecturer Mohammed al-Qissi.
The Iraqi government also plans punitive measures and has threatened to impose a ban on direct flights to the Kurdish region if the KRG doesn’t give up control of the international airports by Friday.
‘We could arrive suddenly at night’
Neighboring countries Turkey and Iran have strongly spoken out against recognition of the referendum.
Fearful the success of the Iraqi Kurds would invigorate the Kurdish autonomy movement in Turkey, Ankara had always opposed Kurdish independence in Iraq. Yet despite its opposition to autonomy, Turkey maintained strong economic relations with the Kurdish autonomous region. That may now change.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the referendum a threat to his country’s national security and threatened military and economic intervention. The Turkish army on Monday strengthened its presence near the Habur border crossing. “We could arrive suddenly one night,” Erdogan warned.
Iran, too, mobilized its troops and tightened security measures at its borders with northern Iraq. The Iranian National Security Council announced on Sunday that, at the request of the central government in Baghdad, the airspace to northern Iraq would be closed. All flights to Sulaymaniyah and Erbil have been canceled until further notice. And in the Iranian border provinces of West Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards staged military maneuvers.
On Thursday, the Iraqi government announced that the United Nations had offered to help solve the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil over independence.